Interview with Leonard Cohen
By Jordi Sierra I Fabra
"I don't think of myself as a singer, writer, or any other thing,
the job of being a man is much more than any of that."
----- Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen performed in the Palau de la Mu'sica Catalana, in Barcelona, Spain, on Saturday, October 12, 1974. With the success of the first concert, a second concert was hurriedly scheduled as a matinee on Sunday, October 13. A man sparing with words, but exceedingly expressive with those he says, always and whenever he finds interesting conversation, the night of the first concert he agreed to meet with only three journalists, and each of these separately, in his dressing room at the Palalu de la Mu'sica. The following morning, in brief moments at his hotel, he spoke freely with anyone who approached him or asked him a question.
The following is the result of a brief interview on October 12 and two other conversations with him during those days in which, for the first time, Leonard stood on Spanish soil.
Jordi Sierra I Fabra - After the announcement of your retirement from the world of music, why this tour and the appearance of a new album?
Leonard Cohen - I really never left. The announcement of my retirement was the result of a bit of sensationalism by a journalist who either took very lightly, or freely interpreted, something I said. There are times when one is facing a crisis, and the tone of what is said can be freely interpreted by anyone with a little imagination. In one of those good or bad moments of sincerity, when words come from the heart more than from the brain, that announcement was generated.
J.S. - Do you have many times of real depression?
L.C. - I wouldn't call it depression, rather a matter of conscience. One has to notice that we are immersed in a terrible and catastrophic age that is affecting many people. Each day hundreds of nameless people die, while I am singing and you are listening to music. It's a constant apocalypse, and in some people, that leaves its mark.
J.S. - Is it hard for you to leave your solitude to record an album or to go into the public light?
L.C. - It's hard from the very first, when I first start thinking of immersing myself again into the hecticness of constant travel, interviews, concerts. Today I sing here and tomorrow there, which means I never get to know people, the cities they live in, their problems, their circumstances. That makes me feel strange, as if I were not really me, only a person who is passing through, at whom people look, whom they hear, and nothing more. But I also do this in order to give myself some concrete answers at specific times in my life. I decided to make this tour, for example, as a way of reviewing my own capabilities, as a profound analysis.
J.S. - What have you found out so far through this analysis?
L.C. - For the moment, that I want to present good music, out of respect for the people who are buying their tickets, and out of respect for myself. The rest I won't know until the tour is over and I have returned to my privacy.
J.S. - Are you really as sad as your songs? As pessimistic, and, at times, as bitter?
L.C. - My work is always autobiographical, and, I hope, objective. Of course, I am like my songs; but I don't consider myself sad, so I don't think my songs are sad.
J.S. - In any case, could one speak of a melancholy born of the heartbeat of that catastrophic world you spoke of before?
L.C. - It's possible that sincerity might be confused with many things, especially in the world of music, where so many commercial currents run. In any case, it's only a question of coloring. My music is a reflection of my personality, and my personality is a reflection of all that surrounds me. For me, seeing all of this as my work, the most important thing is to be worthy. So, I treat this world that surrounds me with the integrity and dignity necessary to bring it, through me, to everyone else. After that, it is the spiritual state of each person that determines how it will affect her or him. A person could think that I or my songs are sad because of that person's own spiritual state, because they are not affected by the chaotic emotions that surround us, because they are living in another state, and I don't mean to say that that state is more superficial or ordinary, on the contrary, it is the way of being forged by each individual, in which they live. But their power to understand will be affected by what they feel, and by the meaning they give to things. My songs are life and the facts of each day, and I am my songs.
J.S. - But it's obvious that, like you, many people think about and feel these things, because otherwise you never would have reached this great communion of ideas, or we could say, this link, between people and your expression as poet and singer. Do you think this is something good, a virtue, that you have to offer?
L.C. - My songs have to be lived from the inside. No one will be able to see anything in them, if they are on the outside. The fact that people buy my albums or that people are interested in me means that there are many people inside these songs. We can't talk about virtues, only about creating some relationships which people can then identify with.
J.S. - When you talk about people, do you see individual faces, or is it a concept of the masses?
L.C. - People are a complex of everyday heroes, at least that's what I feel. There are millions of faces and personalities, but all together they form a people. Then, within each group, there emerges a value system that makes some into leaders and others into followers, that makes some into celebrities, and others into unknown people. All of them are heroes, but each with a different destiny.
J.S. - In spite of being Canadian, you have made the Mediterranean into something of a home. What do countries such as Greece and Spain mean to you?
L.C. - That they are two very pure vestiges in a technologized world. The folklore of both countries is something that is not found in many places, although it seems, from what I have seen since my arrival in Barcelona, that it is losing out in favor of Americanization. A country that has something such as flamenco, that has in its tradition poets like Lorca, shouldn't let itself be influenced, and certainly not governed, by a music made up by another mentality and put on it by strictly commercial interests.
J.S. - Is it true that you have a daughter named Lorca?
L.C. - Yes.
J.S. - Has coming to Spain, or the people here, made an impact on you?
L.C. - It isn't that I've found everything I had imagined, or that I've felt any special images or presences, if that is what you mean. But when the people have connected to my songs, and I have seen them happy, I have felt very connected to them, integrated with them, and that's why I very happily saluted Lorca, dedicating the success of the concert to his memory.
J.S. - What has Garcia Lorca meant in your life?
L.C. - I've already talked about that from the stage. He has been a man of extraordinary influence on both my political and personal work. I admire him. At fourteen years of age, I realized that in order to define the words "purity" and "poetry," I could go to Lorca.
J.S. - Returning to the subject of Mediterranean influence that we talked about before, do you think of these concerts in Spain as having far-reaching effects on you?
L.C. - Yes, that above all, because I have been very influenced by the Mediterranean culture, since I live in the Mediterranean, and because Spain is a profoundly Mediterranean country. I have had a very well-known desire to come here, because of feelings I had, because of Lorca, and get to know the people...
J.S. - With this tour, and with the bad treatment you have received from the English and American critics, how are you feeling about this international exposure?
L.C. - I don't consider myself a great singer. I just play the guitar and interpret my lyrics. I do what I do because I have a need to do it, to express what I know, and to show people what I do. It's true that this tour has had some rough moments, especially in the U.S. and England, but the unpleasant times have not come from the public, just from the critics, and I really don't pay attention to critics. Critics view things with a certain coldness, they focus on the sound, whether it's good or bad, whether one plays the guitar well, on whether there is a large audience, and sometimes they can't see real success, because they don't look into the soul of the audience nor into the soul of the singer. I've seen the people applauding from their hearts, and that is what is truly important for me. And that's the way it was today, here in Barcelona, so this tour, in my opinion, has gone well indeed. I am content, happy.
J.S. - Today you played with a complete band, a keyboardist, saxophone, a bass viola, a cello, a guitar and trumpet, and two girls playing the guitar and singing backup. Why don't you perform solo with just your guitar anymore?
L.C. - Because I realize that I could become tired, or perhaps I couldn't hold the attention of the audience if I were alone on the stage. So, I surround myself with good musicians and sing with them. One has to evolve, but without losing one's identity, of course, and I can't do today what I did eight years ago.
J.S. - Why this severe attitude onstage, without ever moving around, without ever smiling, almost like you aren't really in the moment?
L.C. - There are those who sing commercially who sing laughing, who prance around and make a show, because this is their job. I sing serious songs, and I'm serious onstage because I couldn't do it any other way. I think that a bullfighter doesn't enter the ring laughing, rather, he enters thinking that he is betting his life against the bull.
J.S. - Why did you end the concert with a military salute, why do you do this after each concert you give?
L.C. - Because I don't consider myself a civilian. I consider myself a soldier, and that's the way soldiers salute.
J.S. - But...a soldier? On which side? In what sense?
L.C. - I will leave that to your imaginacion. I am a soldier. That's all. I don't want to speak of wars or sides.
J.S. - Nonetheless, "Lover, Lover, Lover" is dedicated to your "brothers" in the Arab-Israeli war, and besides, you were there, singing for them. This indicates you're taking a side, and in a way, fighting for it.
L.C. - Personal process is one thing, it's blood, it's the identification one feels with their roots and their origins. The militarism I practice as a person and a writer is another thing.
J.S. - But you worry about war, and for that reason it would be logical that you would be concerned about both sides.
L.C. - I don't want to talk about war.
J.S. - Do you feel commercialized when a million copies of your albums are sold?
L.C. - That isn't the problem, that feeling doesn't happen at the time a million albums are sold, it happens afterwards, when I accept the fact that my songs are being recorded and entered into the commercial games. I feel neither guilty nor happy, but I could add that the system uses me as much as I use it, so we would have to speak in terms of collaboration. What concerns me is reaching the people, so I have to submit to the rules of the game, because this system is the only means I have, to do what I have to do.